Anatomy of the Inhuman Heart.)
The sun beats down hard and hot. Desh feels sweat drip down his neck and pool against the collar of his shirt. He is sure that he is minutes away from melting into a tepid puddle on the sidewalk leading to the Academy.
Kat walks beside him, platinum blonde hair dusting the tops of her ears. Kat rolls the sleeves of her blazer up just enough to see the edges of tattoos, unfinished and disconnected. Some of them are thick black line segments, like forgotten connect-the-dots. He wonders if that is the point: if something is never supposed to get finished, it can never be interrupted.
“I can’t believe they do drills outside in this,” Kat says, “I can barely walk.”
“Same,” Desh says. “Whose idea was this again?”
“It is a good story, Desh,” Kat flashes him a cheeky smile, “but maybe you could’ve suggested it in the spring.”
“Not with my allergies,” Desh replies.
“Do you know where we are supposed to go?” Kat gestures to the building in front of them, a squat concrete structure with dozens of onyx screens peppered onto the mottled surface. Green energy. Nice.
“We’re supposed to meet Lieutenant Colonel Chisholm — he’s the guy who runs this place — and Senator Nora Ness.”
“She’s the one who funds it?”
When they arrive at the front of the building they discover there aren’t any doors. A mechanical voice echoes over an intercom and, after a pause to confirm identities and schedules, a shiny panel slides back. Desh shivers when the blast of cool air hits him, and he and Kat skitter inside.
“This is great. We never get visitors,” the mechanical voice says.
Desh and Kat stare. The mechanical voice belongs to a boy floating in the wall next to them. Bottle green glass separates them, and a patchwork of icons flash on the surface. The boy taps a short sequence and his feet fall gently to the floor as the glass recedes. Rows of black, narrow barrels slide into the wall.
“Were those guns?” Kat whispers.
“I’m Tony,” the boy reaches out to shake hands. He wears a form-fitting white jumpsuit that contrasts with the darkness of his skin. He’s bald, and the top of his head shines in the florescent light. It is hard for Desh to look at him, to take in his toothy grin and the shaving wounds on his jawline, his skull.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Tony continues, gesturing to what would seem to be the reception desk.
“Marvels of modern technology,” Desh says. “I’d love to learn more about it, if you have time — but we seem to be a bit short on it, at the moment.”
“Don’t worry; Lieutenant Colonel Chisholm and Senator Ness are in a meeting that’s running long,” Tony says. “They also wanted to make sure you got the latest itinerary. Sent to the New New Republic office this morning.”
“Probably not, seeing as we don’t work out of the office. Just editors.” Kat sighs.
Tony steps back into the reception area and taps against a small panel. He asks for their email addresses and within seconds, their tablets and phones trill and chime notifications.
Kat is the first to react, pulling Desh aside. Presumably to avoid Tony overhearing, though Desh would like to point out the whole place is probably bugged.
“Only one of us in the Chisholm/Ness interview? That’s bullsh —”
“We say no, we’re out. You do their interview, I’ll cover the others.”
“You pitched it,” Kat argues.
“And you’re better at high profile. Come on, it’ll be fine.”
An hour later, Desh regrets his decision. He has a small break before his next round of interviews, a blend of older students about to graduate to the front lines and their faculty advisors.
“So, why are you at the Academy?” Desh attempts to make small talk with Tony.
“My parents gave me the choice between MegaChurch Youth Seminary or the Academy. The MCYS doesn’t have cool toys.”
Tony takes him down a long, blinding white hallway. Desh fights the urge to put on his scratched aviators and tries to ignore how his shoes squeak on the tile. It sounds like the dolphin show at OceanPlanet.
The room is little more than a closet. Desh and Tony squeeze in. Tony adjusts the settings on an unfamiliar machine and hands Desh a lightweight plastic headset.
“Put it on,” he says. “When I come in here, I have to use the SkySuit module. I’ve got most of this room memorized. You get the trainee experience today. SkyLite, if you will.”
The headset connects. Desh sees a warm, happy blue. Green and brown blurs rotate into view, and Desh recognizes the greige concrete of the Academy. The simulation spins and somersaults, flirting with clouds and the thick canopy of a forest.
When was the last time Desh felt like he was flying, fast and free? He remembers a bright, sunny day from his childhood, running up and down a beach whose name escapes him. He hears the waves, the caw of birds, and his own laughter.
The simulation cuts to black and Tony’s voice pulls him back to the present.
“Cool, right? Best part about this place.”
“One of the best sims I’ve ever seen,” Desh says.
“Oh, it’s not a sim. Those are the senior-level students in the flight track. I patched you into one of the live feeds during their air time.” Tony smiles. “That was Lady Danger. She’s our best.”
“Flight track?” Desh swallows. The room feels more cramped than it was before. Desh realizes the black screens on the outside of the Academy are not solar panels. The Academy is also a hangar.
“Most of us can choose which track we want to take depending on our Standardized Army Test scores, hands-on modules, and simulations. Flight’s where I want to be: in the air, no constraints, just the horizon ahead of me. That’s freedom, man.”
Desh nods, but he can’t shake the feeling that it’s still a simulation.